On Hymns


Novalis & Barnum

In his work The language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer explained how Nazi propaganda would daily modify German language so as to spread its ideology. He notably said that totalitarian mental oppression was made of « mosquito bites, not big blows on the head ». It is a mixture, he went on, of « Novalis and Barnum ». Novalis referring to the Romantic poet and Barnum to the American show business entrepreneur who created the Barnum circus in 1871.

Psychologist Paul Meehl coined the phrase « Barnum effect » from there. He was alluding to the manipulative skills of the circus man who declared that « a good circus must have something for everyone ». The Barnum effect designates a suggestion, a subjectivity. Through those, a person is led to accept the fact that a brief description or a fleeting impression apply exactly to his personality. The Barnum effect is to indulge in wishful thinking. It is the disturbing trend of giving a meaning to all our experiences. From there, bitter hopes arise. These suggestions work on the intelligent and the stupid alike. Astrology, cartomancy, numerology and other kinds of spiritualities make an excessive use of it. Via theses practices, customers are convinced that they are assessing their life and their personality in some sort of meeting with « truths » that are uttered and felt. They enter some belief which is suggested to them as being unquestionable and certified. Any challenging of their practices or experiences would be from then on deemed « blasphemous ».

That mixture of suggestion (barnum) and romanticism (novalis) is typical of churches. And it has been so for centuries. Paganism, with its spiritual shows, produced the very first movie screenings. It also used to manipulate its inevitable « climaxes ». That moment, thus called by movie professionals, is when cinematographic tension and emotion reach a paroxysm. This is when the action resolves in a response also called crux of the plot. Aristotle was talking of catharsis, (from katharein, meaning « to purify, to purge »). The term was first used during religious expulsion rituals practiced in Antiquity. For Socrates, Plato or the Stoics, catharsis and philosophy are linked. It meant to isolate the soul from the body, to kill the particular being and dissolve it into the general idea. Closer to home, however, apart from the term used in psychology, catharsis refers to the spectator’s fundamental pleasure. During climax, a sort of emotional purge is taking place, a therapeutic release. It is the scenario’s conflict resolution: David kills Goliath. Screen writers and communication professionals are perfectly familiar with the mechanisms of catharsis. The spectator is made to think that he is that hero triumphing in his fight against evil.

This is how any religious performance works. Catholicism started with its Latin recitations in spectacular buildings, among its own actors wearing special clothes for the occasion. The created suggestion, with its liturgical romanticism, combined with the purification of the participant’s conscience — all of this yielded huge takings the world over. But Catholicism is moribund. Protestantism skillfully managed to modernize the show, to transform it so as it would stick closer to our reality.

And this is why music and hymns, more than prophecies, sentimentalism or miracles, are such crucial elements today. A successful church is one that sings the best and that uses best the modern technologies of sound and light. Just like the Old Testament, which is full of hymns and liturgies, notably in the glorious age of the Kings, churches are coming forward to conquer souls. Trumpets in hands, they suggest to their people that they are the breed of the saints come to make the world a happier place and to make its feelings blossom.

Counter to this racket, the New testament is as stingy with hymns as the Old is generous. Apart from three paltry references in the Pauline letters (among which Ephesians and Colossians, precisely suspected to be pseudepigrapha), we have nothing! Revelation, which is about the world to come, needs to be considered separately of course. By contrast, in the one and only occurrence where the Gospels refer to hymns in Christ’s presence, what is then being said is utterly meaningful. Indeed, after the text reads, « And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives », Jesus himself speaks and announces;: « All ye shall be offended because of me this night » (Mat 2630-31).

Bang! The inevitable happened. The disciples fell asleep during prayer while Christ was sweating blood. Then they all left him! Finally Peter denied him and the cock crowed. All this occurred in the hours following the singing of hymns. The true New Testament Hymn is the cockcrow! That is the message of the text. Great author Gogol was writing about the cock, whose shrill crow always heralds weather change. Isn’t the New Testament heralding the changing of time? Is it not announcing that man’s nature will be revealed? That man, singing at the top of his dunghill, needs to learn who he is so he can reach what he is not.

Looking at Masses and all the evangelical « circuses », such a man has come to wonder what could God be possibly thinking about it. Now, can he not see what Victor Klemperer could see? That is, « the mosquito bites » of religious propaganda through which it is suggested to one, in a sickly romantic environment, that their sanctification is the purgative experiment of worship services and Masses. There is more truth in Peter’s bitter tears than in the hymns he was chanting the moment before. Let Christians do the same, let them cry bitterly. For, today, their hymns and their prophetic jumble are tolling their reprobation. They are themselves the prophecy that they cannot hear for screaming so loud. The prophecy of the cockcrow, that is soon coming for them.

Ivsan Otets

This text is available in print with 11 other Ivsan Otets writings.

Book presentation page : Sons of Man [↗︎]